I've always considered myself a fan of Telltale's style of episodic gaming. Because of this, I go out of my way to play a good chunk of non-Telltale games in a similar vein to see how others are doing it. The Council caught my attention thanks to its use of RPG elements in what is usually a genre based on conversation and choices, along with an interesting alt-historical timeline involving one crazy conspiracy. The first episode, The Mad Ones, is now in my hands. Is this a council worth attending, or should you just skip the meet?
You play as Louis de Richet, a member of a secret organization called the Golden Order. Their job is to influence political leaders and attempt to write history to their liking. When his mother (the leader of the Golden Order) goes missing, Louis travels to a mysterious island owned by an eccentric noble to find her. Things quickly get weird when Louis begins to have strange visions showing his mother murdering guests and talking about hiding a mysterious object. Now, on this island with some of the most powerful and influential people in the world, Louis will have to unravel the mystery and discover what's going on.
I do mean powerful people as well, as Louis will be rubbing elbows with political, religious, and military leaders. This includes real historical figures such as George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Johann Christoph von Wöllner. There's also plenty of fictional characters as well, such as English duchess Emily Hillsborrow, Cardinal Giuseppe Piaggi, and French Revolutionary tribunal judge Jacques Peru. There's even a bit of historical conspiracy with Elizabeth Adams, the secret daughter of Vice President John Adams. This weird mismatch of historical and fictional characters works quite well. I quickly became interested as to why each member of the case was part of this grand conspiracy.
That said, The Mad Ones almost feels like a bit of a meet and greet. The central plot of Louis' missing mother barely advances in this episode. Instead the focal point is more on getting to know each of the players involved in the plot. The beginning of the episode gives some interesting clues, as does the very end, but everything in between seems more like it's just getting through some side plot filler and character building. There's nothing wrong with this, but it doesn't quite provide the strong hook needed to keep me super excited for the next episode.
While this may sound like a Telltale-style adventure game where all you do is have conversations and make choices, there's actually a decent number of RPG elements present in The Council. At the start of the game, you have to decide if Louis is a diplomat, detective, or occultist. Each of these three jobs has their own skills associated with them, and these skills can assist Louis in finding his mother. For example, you can learn linguistics to read the Latin inscription outside of Mortimer's mansion, which teaches you more about Mortimer. You have to take some care on when to apply the skills though, as each use requires you to spend points of effort. Lose enough effort and you'll suffer from negative status effects and be unable to use your skills.
Your skills also come in handy while having discussions with the other guests. Each character has different skills that they'll either be vulnerable or immune to. Eventually, you'll get into confrontations with other characters, where you need to convince them to help you or hand you some sort of important item. This is the closest The Mad Ones gets to combat, as you verbally spar with opponents and try to use their vulnerabilities against them. The confrontations take place in phases, with success entirely dependent on the final phase. Each phase you manage to pass without messing up gives you an extra shot on that final phase, which you'll just keep repeating until you succeed or run out of chances. It's a fun system, managing to make conversations feel exciting and like I really needed to learn about characters to advance.
You'll also come across puzzles, and how you use these skills can really help you figure out the solutions in many different ways. For example, one puzzle sees four statutes that need to be placed in specific positions. If you managed to solve an earlier puzzle without mistakes, you'll start this with a hint from Louis' mother. From here, you can find a book about the legend of Medusa and use linguistics to read a note written in Latin that gives another hint. Or, you can use your science skill on a statue holding a shield to muse about how light should bounce off of it. Maybe you have subterfuge, which will let you just break one of the statutes and take a look at its mechanics. The number of ways these skills could come in handy was extremely impressive.
That said, some puzzles boiled down to flat out pixel hunting. There's nothing enjoyable about having to scan every part of the environment hoping you find the next clue. In one area I had to search Louis' bedroom to try and find a hidden note from his mother. For the most part the answer was to just walk in circles until I found each glowing area I could interact with. My skills couldn't really assist with this one at all, which just made the puzzle feel out of place compared to the others. Thankfully, this wasn't the norm.
I did have a tough time with The Council's art style, mostly because the game is ugly. It's not ugly because it's technically incompetent, it's ugly because it feels like the devs were shooting for that. Each character has this weird uncanny valley look where they're just a bit over-detailed in a sort of disgusting way. From poorly applied makeup to blemishes and wrinkles, every closeup of a character's face made me feel honestly uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the game's animations aren't quite enough to really draw me in. Facial animations are stiff and have little emotion in them. Worse is the game's tendency to very quickly jump from one animation to another, often in ways that make it look like character models are glitching out. It felt like a little more time was needed to clean these up.
Despite these problems, I came away from The Council rather entertained. The Mad Ones works as an introduction to the strange alternative history world, and also in getting players used to the mechanics of the game. While it has some issues, like occasional pixel hunting puzzles and a story that doesn't quite move as fast as I'd like, I'm interested in seeing a second episode expand on this formula. I think there's a lot of potential here.
The Council - Episode 1: The Mad Ones was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One.
Occasionally rough around the edges, The Council's first episode is a surprisingly entertaining combination of Telltale's episodic adventure games and tabletop RPG elements.
- Interesting Setting with Great Characters
- Tabletop RPG Elements Add Interesting Gameplay
- Puzzles Can Be Solved Multiple Ways
- Story Doesn't Advance Enough
- Occasional Pixel Hunt Puzzle
- Stiff Animations